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Overnight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19

Overnight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19
© Greg Nash

Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: Congress on Thursday brought President BidenJoe BidenChinese apps could face subpoenas, bans under Biden executive order: report OVERNIGHT ENERGY:  EPA announces new clean air advisors after firing Trump appointees |  Senate confirms Biden pick for No. 2 role at Interior | Watchdog: Bureau of Land Management saw messaging failures, understaffing during pandemic Poll: Majority back blanket student loan forgiveness MORE’s nominee to lead the Pentagon one step closer to confirmation.

The House on Thursday approved a waiver allowing retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as Defense secretary.

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Austin, who retired from the military in 2016, needs the waiver because of a 1947 law that requires Defense secretaries to be out-of-uniform for at least seven years. Both chambers of Congress need to approve the waiver.

The House approved the measure in a 326-78 vote, with opposition from 15 Democrats and 63 Republicans.

Initial concerns: Lawmakers in both parties initially expressed concern that granting a waiver for Austin would further erode the principle of civilian control of the military, particularly so soon after Congress granted a similar waiver for James Mattis, former President Trump’s first Defense secretary.

Most Democrats have since rallied around Austin, who would be the first Black secretary of Defense if confirmed by the Senate.

Still, the intra-party debate over Austin’s waiver dominated an hourlong call among House Democrats on Thursday morning. A handful of Democrats expressed “great consternation” about normalizing military leaders running the Pentagon.

“There were universal accolades for the man but a concern about the precedent it sets,” said one House Democrat on the call.

Pelosi’s stance: A day after attending Biden’s inauguration, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) defended his top Pentagon pick. She told rank-and-file members of the House Democratic caucus that she understood their qualms about the waiver, noting that many Democrats voted against Mattis’s waiver four years ago not because they disliked him but because the Trump administration did not allow him to brief or testify before the House.

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On the call, Pelosi argued Austin is the right person for the moment and that party unity during the first votes of the new Biden administration is important, sources on the call said.

“Gen. Austin is a highly qualified and well-respected leader with over 40 years of decorated service. He brings a great understanding of the challenges facing our nation's defenses and the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform and their families,” Pelosi later told reporters. “Once the waiver is approved, I feel confident that the Senate will confirm the general as secretary of Defense.”

Earlier: The House Armed Services Committee heard from Austin before Thursday’s vote, but it happened behind closed doors after the panel canceled a public hearing with him.

The committee blamed procedural issues for the cancellation of Thursday’s hearing and said it would instead hold a less formal closed-door roundtable ahead of the vote.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who has been lobbying his colleagues to support the waiver, defended Austin’s transparency Thursday despite the meeting taking place behind closed doors.

Meanwhile, in the Senate: The Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday approved Austin, as well as the waiver that would him to take the job.

The panel approved both the waiver and Austin’s nomination with two separate voice votes Thursday, two days after his confirmation hearing, the committee said in a news release.

The nomination and the waiver now head to the floor for full Senate approval. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Thursday a vote on the waiver could happen as soon as later in the day, while the committee said the confirmation vote would happen after Austin submits his written answers to supplemental questions from his confirmation hearing.

Read more here.

BIDEN TO SEEK 5-YEAR EXTENSION OF KEY ARMS CONTROL PACT WITH RUSSIA: President Biden’s administration will seek a full five-year extension of the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday.

“I can confirm that the United States intends to seek a five-year extension of New START as the treaty permits,” Psaki told reporters at a briefing. 

About the pact: New START, which is due to expire in February, limits the number of deployed nuclear warheads the U.S. and Russia can each have at 1,550 and also puts limits on weapons that can fire warheads.

The Trump administration had sought to replace New START with a new nuclear arms treaty that also included China, putting the treaty’s fate in limbo under the previous administration.

The thinking behind the extension: Psaki said that the extension of the treaty, which represents the only remaining major arms pact between the U.S. and Russia, was necessary given Moscow’s increasingly adversarial behavior.

“The president has long been clear that the New START treaty is in the national security interest of the United States and this extension makes even more sense when the relationship with Russia is adversarial as it is at this time,” Psaki said.

Psaki indicated she had no information on whether U.S. officials had alerted their Russian counterparts of their desire to seek a five-year extension. Russia would need to agree to the extension. The treaty allows for an extension of up to five years.

The treaty is due to expire on February 5. Arms control experts had urged Biden to extend it.

Other goals: Psaki said that Biden would also seek an assessment from the U.S. intelligence community on the SolarWinds hack, which officials blamed on Moscow, as well as Russian interference in the 2020 election, Russian involvement in the poisoning of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, and alleged Russian bounties on U.S. service members in Afghanistan.

The moves indicate that Biden will look to stake out a tough stance on Russia while also seeking cooperation on issues like arms control. Biden has not yet spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin since being elected president, as he has other world leaders.

TWO MORE SERVICE MEMBERS KILLED BY COVID-19: Another two U.S. service members have died from COVID-19, bringing the official number of troops killed during the pandemic to 17.

The two deaths were first noted in Wednesday’s update of the online chart the Pentagon maintains of coronavirus cases connected to the department.

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Who they were: The Navy confirmed Thursday that one of the deaths was a 52-year-old Navy reservist originally from Georgia.

Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Abdigafar Warsame, a reservist assigned to the Navy Operational Support Center in Columbus, Ohio, died at a civilian hospital Jan. 8, Navy Reserves spokesperson Cmdr. Ben Tisdale said in a statement.

A Pentagon spokesperson said the other death was a member of the New York Air National Guard. The New York National Guard did not immediately respond to requests for more information Thursday.

Warsame and the guardsman join seven other reservists and five other National Guardsmen who have died from COVID-19.

In addition, three active-duty service members have died from the disease: a Navy sailor and two Army soldiers.

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